by Susan Carey
I was down in the river meadow when the white-topped ambulance showed above the overgrown hedges, going up the road towards our farm.
‘She’s coming home, she’s coming home!’ A childish voice rejoiced in my head and I ran up to the farmhouse to greet her. Tears were falling by the time I got there and in choked silence I watched the ambulance men help her out of the vehicle.
“We saw you running,” one of the ambulance men said. I could only nod in response. Mum had come home, but it would be for the very last time.
How would we cope, my stepfather, sister and I? We had one strong woman to rely on, our District Nurse, Joan Ingram, who fought so that Mum could come home to die. If it was left to medical bureaucracy, my mother would have been shoved up to the end of a hospital ward and forgotten. A woman, who knew the smell of shit better than the smell of disinfectant and who had helped countless ewes to lamb, was almost condemned to spend her last days in the sterile environment of a general hospital.
Mum was in the final stages of ovarian cancer and was taking liquids and morphine intravenously. A hospital bed was set up in our living room and the district nurses came twice a day to administer medication. I looked forward to Nurse Ingram’s visits the most. Joan brought the hustle and bustle of life with her and the power to briefly persuade you that life might just one day be alright again.
Joan was a well-rounded woman. The seams and waistband of her navy blue jacket and skirt were showing signs of strain. She kept her dark hair back in a bun but disobedient strands of hair escaped and fell around her face. Her pill-box hat had usually slid down by the end of her rounds, arriving at a jaunty angle. She had a capped temporary-tooth that sometimes wriggled loose and fell out of her mouth. The sight of Joan’s ample bottom restrained by navy blue Crimplene as she retrieved the tooth from under a piece of furniture, made us smile.
One evening she arrived and announced. “I’ve got something to celebrate.”
My stepfather, Harold, fizzed open the cider bottle.
He poured a small glass of cider and pushed it into her hand, ignoring her protestations.
Harold, Joan and I raised glasses. My sister was out for the evening. Taking a break from full-time care of Mum. Outside the birds were singing as dusk approached and in the top meadow our first spring lambs were playing King-of-the-Castle. Mother Cat was curled up on Mum’s bed, purring.
“What are we celebrating then?” Harold asked.
Joan didn’t need much prompting as she loved to talk. “I had my thousandth baby today!”
“You’re looking well on it,” Harold remarked.
She walked over to Mum’s bed and leaned down towards her. “This week I delivered my thousandth baby, Nell.”
“You’re a marvel, aren’t you. I don’t know what we’d do without you.” Mum said, a glimmer of a smile around her lips.
“It took me back to one of the first babies I delivered. What a night that was!” Joan put down her glass of cider, unsnapped her nurse’s bag and took out a morphine ampoule, ready to inject into the drip.
Mum shook her head and held up her hand. “No, not yet. I want to hear the story of the first baby.”
“Alright then, Nell.” Joan patted Mum’s hand and placed the unbroken ampoule down on the bedside table.
“It was one of my first, solo call-outs.”
We settled back, waiting for the story to unfold.
Joan sat down in an armchair near Mum’s bed and took a tiny sip of cider. “It had been raining solid for days on end. I’d just finished watching Z Cars and got up to switch off the telly, when the phone rang. Even as I walked to the phone I had a sense of something not being right.
She’s having a baby, Miranda’s having a baby! The well-educated voice shouted down the receiver at me, his words slurring into each other.
Alright, now try and calm down, I said. Your wife and I need you to be calm.
We’re not married, Man, but you’ve gotta come quick! My chick’s having a baby.
I asked him where he was phoning from and my heart sank when he told me the address. The Manor in Hay-on-Wye was notorious back then. Squatted by a hippy commune. An exodus of them had come down to the Welsh borders, escaping the rat race and had set up shop in the dilapidated stately home. The house was about half a mile back from the road and the track would be deep mud after all the rain we’d had.
I’m on my way, I said.
My windscreen wipers were going like the clappers but they weren’t much good in that downpour. After driving through that for an hour, The Manor loomed in the distance, its windows all lit up as if it was on fire. I parked on the roadside at the entrance, not wanting to risk getting stuck in the mud. I pulled on my wellies and got out my bag and torch. Even from the road I could hear the rock music blaring out from a downstairs window. Loads of brightly-painted old bangers were parked in front of the house; 2CVs, Renaults and VW campervans all higgledy-piggledy on what used to be landscaped gardens. I was drenched by the time I reached the house. I stepped through the enormous doorway into a great hall where a long-haired bloke was propped up against the curling banisters. He lifted his hand and said: Hi, Babe.
Nobody ever called me babe, not even in those days and I certainly didn’t merit the title when I was in my uniform and mud-splattered wellies. He had a drunken grin plastered on his face so I ignored him. The double doors to the main drawing room were open. Inside, a sea of prone bodies lay strewn over ramshackle furniture and empty bottles jostled against each other on the floor as I picked my way over the debris. Candles in the windows were burning down low and the smell of wax and some sweetish tobacco was overpowering. Brightly coloured saris hung in the windows. The whole place could go up in flames if they caught on one of those candles, I thought. As if I didn’t have enough to worry about.
The main drawing room led onto another room full of people in varying stages of consciousness and then, almost as I was beginning to give up hope of finding anyone sober, a young man came up to me and took my arm.
She’s through here, Love, Miranda’s through here. I recognised his voice from the phone. He led me along a dark corridor into a room at the back of the house. Must have been a library judging by all the old books on the shelves. On a filthy mattress on the floor was a young, long-haired woman. She was on all fours, as high as a kite, crying out: I’m having a baby, I’m having a baby. She was stark naked and the baby’s head was just showing between her legs.
‘Now keep your head Joan Ingram,’ I said to myself sternly as my heart hammered in my chest. ‘You’re the only one here who’s still got her marbles and that baby is depending on you!’
I knelt down beside the bed and helped the woman breathe through her contractions. They were coming rapidly by then. She gave one last push and screamed like a banshee. Even though she was stoned, I was amazed that her body knew what to do.
I supported the baby’s head and the little girl popped out into my arms, sweet as a nut! The woman had the baby so easy, like a cow calving. Thank God there were no complications. Maybe the baby knew it would have to be sharp to survive in the world it had just come into. I quickly cut the umbilical cord and wrapped her in a clean towel I’d brought with me. I gave the baby to the mother, who seemed to have sobered up a bit and then instructed the father to go and get a bowl of hot water to help mother and daughter clean up. I was just getting my breath back when an enormous red setter came lolloping into the room and ran off with the still-warm afterbirth. I dashed after him, stepping over party-revellers and smashed wineglasses – I needed to take a sample back with me to the surgery – but it was no good. He shot out of a back door and disappeared into the night.’
The thought of Joan Ingram chasing a red setter as it ran off with her patient’s afterbirth brought tears of laughter to our eyes.
“I stayed the night to make sure they were alright and on the way home I parked the car on a quiet road. The sun was just coming up. I pulled onto the grass verge and had a good cry. It was a miracle I didn’t lose that baby. A miracle. I was so inexperienced, not much more than a baby myself in those days.”
She smiled at the memory, stood up and quickly administered Mum’s morphine. She straightened her pill box hat and said, “Got to get the old man’s dinner on.”
Harold stood up and opened the door for her.
“See you tomorrow.” She smiled and waved at Mum.
“Thanks for the story,” Mum whispered as she drifted into sleep. “See you tomorrow….”